Why feral felines are our most popular pet problem

FORT KENT — On their own, cats live well in the wild. So well, in fact, that feral feline colonies in Maine often experience fast, uncontrolled population growths.

Some reports estimate there are anywhere from 11,000 to 30,000 homeless cats in Maine’s cities and countrysides. These sheer numbers can stretch animal rescue efforts and place immense predation stress on local wildlife.

Even with private and public efforts to control the population, many felines still end up housed in of Maine’s 90-plus licensed animal shelters. Once they arrive, not all have a happy ending.

In 2012, more than 5,000 cats that couldn’t be adopted were euthanized, according to a shelter survey from state’s animal welfare program. The previous year, more than 7,000 felines — an average of 14 each day — were put down.

In total, about one of every five cats that enters a Maine shelter is euthanized. By comparison, shelter dogs in Maine are euthanized in both smaller numbers — only 644 in 2012 — and a much lesser rate — just 7 percent.

One feline bright spot: 70 percent of shelter cats were adopted, compared to 61 percent of dogs. Yet once lost, cats are nearly never found. While 29 percent of stray dogs were reclaimed by their owners in 2012, only 3 percent of cats were reunited.

“The euthanasia rates (for cats) are telling me a couple of things,” said Katie Lisnik, national director of cat protection and policies for the Humane Society of the United States. “It is possible people are surrendering cats for behavior reasons or other issues that are solvable, so we need to work more on pet retention.”

The 2012 Maine shelter survey pegs the overall shelter population of cats that year at 11,462, but Lisnik said the real numbers are at least three times that.

Ironically, it could be the good intentions of the people “rescuing” stray cats that dooms the animals to extended stays in shelter cages and likely euthanasia.

Earlier this year, for example, there were sizable seizures of cats from homes. One in Freeport over the summer yielded more than 100, while one in Berwick in November yielded 38 and overwhelmed the local shelter.

“The more we try to round up all the free roaming cats, the more we compete with nature,” according to Stacey Coventry, public relations manager at the Bangor Humane Society.

Two cats can become 42,000 in six years

Cats, Coventry said, are born survivors. But when a feral colony’s population starts to overwhelm its food supplies, female cats will produce fewer and smaller litters, thus exercising their own population control.

“When cats are removed from the colonies, the remaining cats will have more kittens in their litters,” she said. “We don’t think it’s a bad thing if the cats are out there, we just don’t want them making more and more cats.”

According to The National Feral Cat Awareness Project, a fertile female cat can produce three litters a year, with an average of four kittens each. In theory, one female and her partner — provided their offspring survive and are fertile — can produce 42,409 cats over six years.

Cats, Coventry said, will do what they need to survive and do so rather efficiently.

“People are trying to fix something that does not need fixing,” she said. “People see those [feral] cats, capture them and make it a shelter issue.”

Trap, neuter, release

To control feral cat colonies, various volunteer groups around the state, along with participating veterinarians, engage in “trap, neuter, release,” or TNR, programs.

“TNR programs are all funded by nonprofits and donations,” Lisnik said. “It does have its critics and is not without its problems, but it’s either do nothing or do something that has community support.”

Eradicating feral cat colonies does not have widespread community support in Maine. Rather, Lisnik said, the practice of trapping feral cats, spaying or neutering and vaccinating them before releasing them back into their colonies has more appeal to Maine residents.

“One of the problems with TNR is it is not a quick fix,” she added, citing an aggressive TNR program in Massachusetts which took 12 years to control the population.

Since 2004, Spay Maine, a collaboration of the state’s animal shelters, veterinarians, animal control officers and animal welfare advocates have worked together to reduce Maine’s shelter intakes and euthanasia.

This work is done in support of Help Fix ME, Maine’s low income spay neuter program, and by promoting spay neuter clinics and programs around the state.

Since the group funded its first low-cost neuter in 2004, more than 18,000 animals have been fixed, according to Susan Hall, one of the driving forces behind the start of Spay Maine.

One of the newer programs in Maine — Barn Buddies — matches feral or the less-socialized cats with people who have sturdy outbuildings in which the cats can live in dry, safe conditions.

Durham resident and horse-facility owner Pam Ward is thrilled with her three new barn buddy cats delivered recently from the Coastal Humane Society. Ward makes sure her barn cats have access to food, water and shelter in addition to regular veterinary care.

“These cats have a job to do in my barn. They are all doing their jobs to keep the rodents down,” Ward said. “I’m allergic to cats, so this is my way of enjoying cats.”

Dr. Christiana Yule of the Fort Kent Animal Hospital has spayed or neutered her share of northern Maine’s feral cats and generally supports the TNR approach.

“I have no problem with it as long as the cats are released back into their home environment and someone is supervising them,” she said. “I’d rather see a stable colony of sterile cats than an ever reproducing colony.”

For those feral cats who do find their way into Maine shelters and who will never make cuddly, purring lap pets, there are options if people are willing to think outside the box.

“As long as someone will provide food, water and vet care, cats will tend to take care of themselves,” Coventry said. “It can be so stressful for these [feral] cats at a shelter, we can help them if we can all be flexible on our cat philosophy.”

There is little doubt cats will continue to be a big part of the Maine landscape — indoors and out.

As long as residents take the time and effort to protect these felines and take steps to ensure population and disease control, the future for Maine’s cats can be a bright one.

After all, Maine ranks second in the nation for cat ownership with more than 50 percent of households counting a feline member of the family, according to the American Veterinary Association.

“Obviously,” said Lisnik, “Mainers love their cats.”

Kevin Bennett/Bangor Daily News

A feral kitten cowers in a makeshift feeding shelter set up by near Hobson Avenue in Veazie in July 2012. The lower end of Hobson Avenue has numerous trailers, under which a large number of feral cats had taken refuge.

Kevin Bennett/Bangor Daily News

A woman named Ruth plays with a cat she is about to adopt at the Animal Orphanage in Old Town in October. Ruth choose a cat that had been at the shelter since June. Feral cats are harder to place and require people with lots of patience to adopt them.

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I think more communities should practice trap, neuter and release for feral cats. It is heartless to think of feline colonies off because of starvation or predators. There are agencies, such as Friends Of Feral Felines who are willing to help. Put a little research in your area and make that call to help the poor cats and in the meantime please feed the cats!

And just where do these

And just where do these "rodent control" cats get rodents in the winter? A few birds, maybe but not too many of anything else. Or maybe it doesn't matter if they go a few days without anything to eat. It takes a pretty cold heart not to feed a hungry cat on your porch with a temperature of -2 degrees. Maybe, just maybe this isn't a feral cat on your porch but a once couch potato that someone got tired of feeding and just didn't let it in anymore no matter how long it meowed at his door. They thought it could catch rodents to stay alive too. Maybe, because it's always been a couch potato it doesn't even know how to succeed in catching enough pests to stay alive.
Even if that shivering feline has been homeless for awhile, I'm for one am not selfish enough to turn my back on it so it will "keep the pest population down." If you don't want to feed the poor thing at the very least call an animal control officer to trap it humanly and take it to the shelter. If it's sick they will euthanize, which I might add is more humane for him than trying to survive in the wild.
I feed and will always feed homeless cats. If I can (and usually do) capture them I will take them to the shelter. I will not turn my back on any suffering animal whether it be illness, injury or hunger. I cannot and will not turn my back on them and say go keep my rodent population down.
Why do so many people consider cats the throw away pet.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

I agree with Melissa

It should have been pointed out in the article, "feral" cats do well on their own. If they were born in the wild, they were taught how to survive from their mothers. If, however they became feral, they were extremely lucky. I think people watch way to many National Geographic programs about wild felines. They assume every cat is born with this natural ability to survive on their own under any circumstances. They think the field mouse population alone will keep a cat alive and happy. Fact of the matter is, staying alive is the hardest part of a domestic cat's existence in the wild. It has nothing to do with food, actually it does have something to do with food, not finding food, becoming food. A domestic cat in the wild has a much better chance of becoming food, than it does finding it. Just like a human, take away all the comforts of home, place you in the middle of nowhere, and assume your going to be just fine based on your instincts. Most people wouldn't last a month, same goes for your beloved pet. After "Tabby" somehow stays clear of the next level of the food chain, there's another danger lurking in the shadows. Disease is very prominent out there, I've seen rabid animals in my days with the phone company working out in the back roads of Oxford County. I saw a rabid fox, actually it saw me, while I was up a pole. It was destroyed and tested positive for rabies. It has to be one of the saddest sights I have ever seen.
I moved into a new place last May, come to find out it came with a surprise, an eight or nine month old Maine Coon Cat. The previous owner I guess moved away and left her after not being able to catch her out side. She spent about four or five weeks out in the trailer park, living under trailers. When I finally borrowed a have-a-heart trap, I caught her. In just four weeks, that poor cat was scared to death of anything, about half her normal weight, but friendly as they come. I guess that shoots down the living on instinct theory. She is back to her normal size, very healthy and loves my other Coon. She's still scared to death of everything that moves, I'm assuming due to something that scared her badly in the wild.
People need to learn that although cats are very independent little critters, they must not confuse that with indestructible. Leave a house cat out in the wild, there's a slight chance it will become feral and join a colony. There's a much better chance the cat will be killed, long before it learns to be feral............

What do I think of this

What do I think of this story? Not much. You've just encouraged even MORE people to abandon their cats by telling them they fend for themselves very well. So gosh, why shouldn't they just take them to a field and toss them out the door. Irrisponsible owners are the major "cause" of the overpopulation of cats and you've just enabled them.
Of course cats can survive in a colony, sometimes comfortably, but when food supplies dwindle so do they....they die. They die from lack of food IF they survive a Maine winter. Even if they survive our winter they may lose their ears from frostbite.
Yes, I feed stray cats in my town because as a human with compassion I can't stand to see a hungry cat that has probably been tossed out by it's owner or abandoned because they moved.
Address the real issue here...people. They need to be responsible. If you have a cat Have-it-spayed-or-neutered! If you can't afford to or just don't want it anymore for heaven's sake...take it to the shelter!


Don't feed them!

You're encouraging the over-breeding when you feed feral cats. Catch, neuter and release, but do not feed! They do very well on their own, and in the right balance, they control the rodent population, Unfortunately, you upset that balance when you put out food for them.


But I do agree that a

But I do agree that a released pet cat will almost always die immediately and horribly. That's just cruel.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Well stated.

Well stated.


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